April 11, 2016

Be a Revolutionary! Stamp Out the Disability Information Famine

Although technology has changed the world for everyone in the last three decades, it has been nothing short of revolutionary for people with vision loss. The personal computer, along with the digitization of data and the world wide web have arguably had more of an impact on living conditions for the blind than the advent of braille or the development of guide dog training. The explosion of accessible mobile devices and smart phones of the last decade has literally changed what it means to be blind.

Closing the Gap

It is hard to really describe the impact of this revolution to sighted people. To the sighted, information that was always available was made more compact, efficient, and economical to access. For the blind, information which was never or scarcely available before became accessible to us for the very first time. And much of this information went even further. It helped close the gap of the sensory impact of blindness by describing the missing visual information. This changed everything.

Let me count (just a fraction) of the ways:

  • Books, newspapers, and periodicals that were not available before or required months of wait time to get are now instantly available in both audio, digital (using voice synthesizers), and braille (either via an embosser or a refreshable braille display) on demand and instantaneously.
  • Print material (e.g., mail, bank statements, medical records) that used to require a live reader or transcriber can now be scanned and read via computer. Blind people were never before afforded this kind of privacy to access their own information.
  • Day-to-day print material and signage that the sighted take for granted is now available in real time and on the go. Bus schedules, restaurant menus, and bulletin boards (the real corkboard kind) are now largely available in a hand-held device.
  • With accessible shopping websites that deliver groceries and other necessities, shopping for goods has become something a blind person can do independently, without a shopping assistant or a driver.
  • Orientation and mobility—the skills a blind person uses to get around—got a huge boost with turn-by-turn GPS directions and map apps that could let the blind traveler know not only what intersection was coming up, but what businesses were nearby and how to get to them.
  • Thousands upon thousands of jobs not before thought accessible entered the realm of possibility for a blind person to perform with competitive ease.
  • Mobile devices are becoming a mode of communication that allow the deafblind to communicate with everyone—from a barista to their doctor or banker—for the first time without the help of an interpreter.
  • Camera and bar code scanner apps help the blind do everything, from identifying the color of their socks to reading the directions on the back of a box of brownie mix. They can even identify who or what is in a photograph.

Yet the Information Famine Persists

As much as technology has, and will continue to open up access to the world for the blind, it is still largely a hit-or-miss minefield out there due to poor coding and inaccessible design. Disability rights attorney, Haben Girma, who is deafblind, describes it as an information famine that still exists in large areas of the web and within applications. These obstacles create a wall between the blind user and access to the same information or functioning that everyone else enjoys. These barriers come in the form of inaccessible websites with disorganized formatting that don’t allow a screen reader to access the information in a way that makes sense. Many pdf files are not created with appropriate labeling and headings, making them impossible to read. Apps can have mislabeled or unlabeled buttons that mean nothing to the blind user and thus make the entire app dysfunctional. Pictures are not described and videos are not described or captioned. Websites and apps are made with sloppy code that confuses a screen reader or braille display and makes the information almost meaningless or takes the user hours to frustratingly wade through.

Enter the Conscientious Tech Designer

Fortunately, the answers to these problems are largely readily available and easily doable for the conscientious tech designer. The problem here has, for the most part, not been the technology itself. It has been in getting those responsible for developing and designing the online and mobile device environments to be aware of and care about these issues. Ensuring tech accessibility may take a bit longer and be a bit inconvenient at times, but this type of design usually has very little impact on the overall project.

It is an added feature that–like other universal design strategies–helps everyone, not just blind people. Like ramps that help parents with strollers and hand-truck wielding delivery drivers, good web and application development helps many more people than just the blind. Accessible tech design makes cleaner, more efficient code that is easier for others to understand, search, and revise. People with dyslexia, deafness and communication disabilities, as well as people with motor impairments, also benefit from accessible web design. Pre-reading children and older folks or just a person who multitasks can use accessibility features to their advantage.

Besides, it’s the law. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), require that services, information, and facilities be made accessible to those with disabilities. Organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind are also working to implement more specific laws and regulations that would cover tech accessibility exclusively. Although technology development still may have a small amount of legal leeway as it has advanced faster than legislation could keep up, that gap is closing fast. Those who are on top of the game early will be much better off in the long run.

Getting Started for Accessibility

To ensure good web and application accessibility, here are a few tips:

  1. Commit from the beginning of any project that it will be made accessibly. Just like architects and building contractors integrate ADA building codes without much thought anymore, so should tech designers and developers.
  2. Educate others on your team about good aspects of accessible design. We still get questions like, “How can a blind person use a computer or a smart phone anyway?” When people are that ignorant about how disabled people adapt, they tend to have low expectations for them and for what they need to do to accommodate them.
  3. It is so much easier to develop with accessibility in mind from the start rather than as an afterthought. Make accessibility a part of your initial planning and discussion. No one enjoys retrofitting.
  4. Teach yourself the guidelines (see links below for a start). Soon they will become second nature.
  5. There are several accessible testing “bots” out there. Use these only as a starting point. They are very limited in effectively testing your design. Field-test your project with actual users of this technology. “Narrative or Manual Accessibility Testing” will give you a much more comprehensive assessment of your design. (Google the term for companies that provide this service.)

Links to get you started:

Mobile Accessibility: https://www.w3.org/WAI/mobile/

Web Accessibility: https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/uaag.php and https://www.w3.org/WAI/WCAG20/quickref/

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Lisa Ferris
Lisa Ferris and partner, Niklas Petersson, founded Miles Access Skills Training (MAST), which teaches and promotes the use of technology and alternative skills to people with vision loss. They are deafblind and blind, respectively, which they feel is an asset in their line of work. When not working, they enjoy spending time outdoors with their guide dogs and 3 children. Find more information about MAST at blindmast.com or on Facebook